by Carlin Dougherty, 2023 Staff
It’s October 2022. I’m sitting in my graduate assistant office – plain walls, dual monitors, and a gray desk chair. I’m in the 2nd year of my 3-year clinical mental health counseling graduate program at LSU. I love the class content, I love my professors, and I know that I’m on the road to a career that I’ll really enjoy and find purpose in one day, but I’m wondering, "Is this all there is to grad school?”
I was clocking in and out of my GA office and going to class day after day, but I knew there was something else I could be doing to make the most of my time. I wanted something that would help me grow personally and professionally, diversify my education, and expand my worldview. I was enjoying school, but I wanted something more.
My dad always reminds me that my first word as a baby was “more.” At that time, I was definitely asking for more food, but “more” has always been something I’ve looked for in my life – more purpose, more meaning, more connection, more service, and more adventure. I knew that I wanted to make my graduate school experience mean more, so I did what any twenty-something facing a potential existential crisis would do...I Googled. After searching “how to work abroad in graduate school” and clicking around for a bit, I stumbled upon LeadAbroad’s staff application, applied, and got the job. Thanks, God!
When I applied, I had no clue what I was getting myself into. I didn’t study abroad in college, I didn’t know a single person on staff, and I’d only been out of the country once with my family. I wanted to push myself and do something entirely out of my comfort zone, so when Courtney told me I’d be the Health & Safety Advisor in South Africa for 2 months, I thought, “Perfect!” Cape Town isn’t your typical study abroad location, so I was ecstatic to experience the culture, get to know the students, and partake in all the service and adventure opportunities the city had to offer.
As we got into spring training, I began to feel increasingly confident in my ability to do the job well. I was studying the LeadAbroad procedures and watching training videos and gearing up to hop on that 13-hour flight, but then something I wasn’t expecting happened. My grandma, my Yaya, got sick and wasn’t improving. She passed away about a week or so before I had to leave, and I started questioning everything. Can I do this now? Should I do this now? What does this mean?
I was leaving my family, my comfort zone, and my support system in a time of grief and sadness. Going to a country I’d never been to with people I’d never met for 2 months suddenly became a lot more intimidating. My Yaya loved to travel. She’d been to more countries than I can count and had enough incredible stories for a million blog posts.
After encouragement from my family and ample reminders that Yaya would have wanted me to go on this adventure, I was ready. On May 6th, 2023, I attended her funeral and hugged my family goodbye. I cried on my flight from New Orleans to Atlanta but had to pull it together in the Atlanta airport. I was about to meet my fellow staff members for the first time, and I couldn’t do that while sobbing! We all met up at our gate for the very first time. We hugged and giggled with excitement about what the next couple of months would hold for us. Without knowing it, their kindness, joy, humor, and intentionality helped me during a really challenging time. After meeting Ish (the man, the myth, the legend) and adjusting to life at Lagoon Beach, I knew that this was exactly where I was supposed to be. I’d found my purpose and I’d found my people - it was time to get to work!
We guided students as they maneuvered their time abroad, provided tips and tricks for getting around the city, and picked up the pieces if something ever went wrong. The days were tough, long, and busy, but SO fun. As Health & Safety Advisor, my days were often filled with difficult conversations with students, leadership opportunities, crisis management, & doctor visits. Responding to any physical or mental health crisis that arose while in Cape Town was my job. I was able to connect my counseling work to the work I was doing abroad by using techniques and interventions I learned at LSU to support students struggling with anxiety, homesickness, and other mental health issues. I did my best to help them make the most of their experience and sharpened my solution-focused skills along the way.
I watched hundreds of college students face fears, make memories, & create lasting friendships. I served the local community & experienced a new culture. I even tackled one of the world’s tallest bungee bridges, jumped out of a plane, & hiked one of the seven natural wonders of the world alongside some of the coolest college students in the country.
I’m forever grateful for my time in Cape Town, but I’m mostly thankful for the people I met along the way – the staff, the students, and the locals. LeadAbroad’s mission is “to lead transformative experiences.” Summer 2023 was certainly that for me and for so many others. I’ll be working with LeadAbroad again this summer, but this time in Barcelona!